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The R2P debate: the story so far
Béatrice Pouligny

On 14 September 2009, the UN General Assembly adopted by consensus its first ever resolution on the Responsibility to Protect (R2P). This resolution followed three days of debate on the issue, which was also a first. Though, in recent years, there has been growing acceptance of this concept, it is still not clear how it should be applied concretely. This article looks at the most recent developments – particularly in connection with the question of protecting civilians in war contexts – and key questions which have yet to be resolved.

For the first time since its endorsement by Heads of State at the 2005 UN summit, the concept of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) was debated in a General Assembly plenary session on 23, 24 and 28 July 2009. On 14 September, the first ever resolution on this subject was adopted by consensus (A/63/L80 Rev. 1). Its three paragraphs are extremely brief and simple. It states that the General Assembly has “taken note” of the Secretary General’s report on the subject and of the “productive debate” which was organised and has decided to “continue its consideration” of R2P, which means that R2P will regularly figure on the General Assembly’s agenda. These modest results were in keeping with the objectives that had been fixed by the Secretary General and his advisor, who were satisfied after a debate which had been stormier than expected. The question remains, however, about how this doctrine will be applied in concrete terms.

 A quick reminder of the content and history of the R2P concept

The R2P doctrine concerns the responsibility of states and the international community to protect populations against four specific types of crimes and violations of Human Rights: genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. The central idea is that a state is not uniquely responsible for the well-being of its population. If it fails or is clearly not assuming its responsibility, it is then down to the international community to do so, respecting the principles of international law and the United Nations Charter. R2P has three dimensions: the responsibility to prevent, the responsibility to react (by diplomatic, legal and other peaceful means; through coercive means such as sanctions; and by military force as a last resort) and the responsibility to reconstruct.

The concept of R2P was formally established by the Report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, published in December 2001 [1]. The conceptual and political foundations of the concept were then established in three major United Nations documents. At the end of 2004 the High-Level Panel on Threats, Challenges, and Change, which was created by the Secretary-General, referred directly to the concept in the title of its report “A More Secure World: Our Shared Responsibility”, which included several pages on the subject. Kofi Annan then dealt with the concept in a chapter on the freedom to live in dignity in his subsequent report, “In Larger Freedom”. And at the 2005 World Summit, heads of state and government gave the concept unprecedented political weight by dedicating two principle paragraphs to it in the Outcome document (138 and 139, paragraph 140 being more “trivial”). This document, dated 20 September 2005, was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly via a resolution dated 24 October 2005 (A/RES/60/1). This momentum was kept up when the United Nations Security Council re-affirmed the content of paragraphs 138 and 139 from the Outcome document on R2P in Resolution 1674 (28 April 2006) on the protection of civilians in armed conflicts. It recognised the importance of the concept again in resolution 1706 (31 August 2006) concerning the establishment of a peacekeeping force in Darfur. The discussions which took place in the General Assembly last July were the first opportunity that the Member States had had to discuss the issue since 2005. The debates were supposed to focus on the Secretary-General’s report, “Implementing the Responsibility to Protect”, that is to say, how to put the concept into practice rather on the concept itself, in order not to re-open the Pandora’s box. In the end, the debates did not focus solely on implementation, but there was general agreement amongst observers that there had been a fundamental shift from the question of the acceptability of the concept to its application.

[1] ICISS (2001), Report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, Ottawa: International Development Research Centre.